It is too early to know what happened to Flight MH17. It may indeed have been shot down by Russian separatists, as the Ukraine government and its western allies are claiming. Or it may have been shot down by forces linked to the Ukraine government. If separatists were responsible, it is likely to have been a horrible mistake rather than a deliberate attack on a civilian airline, since it is very difficult to see what possible benefits such an attack could bring to the separatist cause.
Naturally that isn’t the way the Kiev government and its supporters are presenting it. The Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko has said ‘This is not an incident, this is not a catastrophe, this was a terrorist attack‘ – a representation of Ukraine separatists as well as the attack that is clearly aimed at an already sympathetic audience.
The bug-eyed warmonger John McCain has said there will be ‘hell to pay’ if Russia is responsible. The no-less hawkish Hilary Clinton has called for the world to ‘ put Putin on notice that he has gone too far’, as if the Russian president personally ordered the plane to be shot down.
For the time being, the Obama administration has limited itself to accusing Russia of indirect responsibility by arming separatists and ‘inflaming’ the situation in Ukraine. Arming rebels, as we all know, is something that only the United States and its allies are allowed to do, and it goes without question that the West would never do anything to ‘inflame’ conflict, either in Ukraine or anywhere else.
Whoever was responsible, Flight MH17 is another injection of horror and tragedy into an international system that is already dangerously unstable. Next week, on 28 July, it will be exactly one hundred years since a twentieth century Europe that believed itself to be at the apex of civilization stumbled sleepily into the industrialised barbarism of World War I.
As the world well knows, the conflagration was triggered by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo carried out a group of Serbian nationalists. But the archduke’s illustrious corpse merely set in motion a chain of responses that had been planned, developed and rehearsed for the best part of two decades.
The potential for war was an implicit component of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century state system on so many levels; in the system of alliances constructed by the great powers; in military contingency plans and arms races and armaments programs; in imperial rivalries and the economic competition for markets and colonies; in the unresolved class conflicts that bourgeois governments were unable or unwilling to resolve politically; in nationalistic fervor and the glorification of war and violence as essential hallmarks of patriotic grandeur.
All these factors contributed to a situation in which even seemingly minor incidents had the potential to cause a war, whether it was the 1898 Fashoda Incident or the Agadir Crisis of 1911, until finally Archduke Ferdinand’s driver took him down the wrong route home and led him directly into the path of Gavrilo Princip’s bullets..
From that incident of Serbian ‘terrorism’ came the Austro-Hungarian declaration of war on Serbia, the pre-planned responses of the Triple Alliance and the Triple Entente, the implementation of the Schlieffen Plan, the deployment of the British Expeditionary Force, and a cascade of violence that left more than ten million dead. .
Today, one hundred years later, a dangerous convergence of war and conflict is bringing the international system to boiling point. In Gaza, Israel and the West have ‘chosen’ war, as even the New York Times admitted, essentially in order to undermine the Hamas/Fatah unity government. Both Iraq and Syria are sinking into a vortex of civil war and sectarian conflict that threatens to rip the Middle East to shreds. Libya is already in the throes of civil war and Afghanistan is moving in the same direction. The Gulf States are awash with newly-bought western weapons, which they have bought primarily to use against Iran.
Ukraine has now become the focal point of a geopolitical confrontation between NATO and Russia, that neither side may be able to control. All these localised wars have the potential to become even more destructive than they already are. The tensions, crises and faultlines that have produced this perfect storm have many different causes, and many governments and ‘non-state actors’ alike have combined to bring the world to its current boiling point.
But the most active exponents of 21st century militarism have been western governments, who have demonstrated a persistent willingness since the end of the Cold War to project military force at every possible opportunity in order to secure strategic and economic leverage, control of energy resources.
This willingness to seek military solutions as a first choice is the essence of militarism. Today’s militarism isn’t the militarism of the kaiser, the dreadnought or the Primrose League. There aren’t parades of troops and weapons, or marching bands to stir the hearts of the nation.
Today’s militarism is militarism-lite, promulgated by men in suits with vainglorious dreams who imagine the world as a series of dictatorships, failed states and lawless zones that can all be put right by a shower of missiles. It’s the militarism of dim fanatics like Tony Blair; of op ed columnists who have convinced themselves that war is humanitarian, altruistic, and painless (for them).
Today’s wars are set in motion by elite groups of politicians, generals, securocrats, and arms manufacturers who dream of ‘Pacific pivots’ and ‘countering’ Russia, China, or Iran, who believe that they can win any war through better technology, through drones, missiles and better targeting systems, or simply be giving weapons to other people to kill each other with.
The result is a brittle and desperately over-stressed international order in which any incident anywhere has the potential to trigger an even more destructive confrontation, whether it’s the kidnapping of three Jewish teenagers, a faked Iranian assassination attempt on the Saudi Arabian ambassador, or the shooting down of a passanger plane.
So whoever shot down Flight MH17, it has already fuelled the dangerous dynamic of global conflict that is leading the 21st century world inexorably towards violent chaos. And unless global civil society can once again recover the spirit of the great marches of 2003, and find ways to counter these developments, we may be in for even darker times ahead.